Retro Review: Green Arrow: The Longbow Hunters By Mike Grell For DC Comics!

Green Arrow: The Longbow Hunters #1-3 (1987)

Written by Mike Grell

Art by Mike Grell

Assisted by Lurene Haines

Colour by Julia Lacquement

Spoilers (from thirty-three years ago)

After the wild success of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, there was a quick flurry of activity at DC that was focused on updating central characters, making them more mature and reflective of the post-Miller, post-Watchmen assertion that comics were not just for kids anymore.  It was an exciting time to be discovering comics, although my participation stayed inconsistent and spotty.

To that end, I never bought Mike Grell’s three-part Green Arrow: The Longbow Hunters.  $4 Canadian was a lot for a single comic in those days, and I’d never read a Green Arrow comic at that point (aside from appearances in Justice League of America or, in his Earth-2 version, All-Star Squadron).  I did like the hooded look that Grell gave Ollie, but something about the book never appealed to me.  

Until the moment that I sat down to start this column, I’d always assumed that this comic was “suggested for mature readers”, like Dark Knight.  I do remember my twelve-year-old self glancing at the almost-nude scenes a few times, and I guess from there I decided that I wasn’t supposed to be reading it (not that that alone would have stopped me).

I also never read Grell’s ongoing Green Arrow series that launched after this, aside from the occasional crossover issue.  I have no idea what this book is about, but I’m curious to see what it’s like after all this time.  Join me…

Let’s track who turned up in the title:

Villains

  • Seattle Slasher (#1)
  • Shado 
  • Mr. Magnor 
  • Mr. Osborne (#2-3)

Supporting Characters

  • Black Canary (Dinah Lance)
  • Lt. Cameron (#2-3)

Let’s take a look at what happened in these books, with some commentary as we go:

  • An unseen narrator opens the book by talking about the nature of hunters.  When a woman, most likely a prostitute, approaches him, he flashes back to an image of a topless Vietnamese woman, and stabs the woman to death.  A newspaper article discusses the “Seattle Slasher”; this woman was his 18th victim.  This article is covering the window in the new home and flower shop of Ollie Queen and Dinah Lance, who have just moved to Seattle.  They talk about the Slasher, and another killed called “The Robin Hood Killer” who has killed four victims so far – all middle-aged men.  Ollie talks about getting a job in Seattle, when suddenly a girl breaks through their window, clearly in medical distress.  Ollie finds crack in her purse.  Later, after paramedics and police have arrived, Dinah insists on going with the girl in the ambulance.  When she returns later, she explains that her name is Rita, and that she’s been on drugs for a while.  Ollie’s finished setting up their home, which has a stone spiral staircase in a turret, and he shows Dinah around.  He hangs up his Robin Hood painting, and talks about how life is changing for him.  He mentions that Roy (Harper, his former sidekick) becoming a father makes him a grandfather now, and that the world is different.  He talks about idolizing the actor Howard Hill, and how he met him on the night that he ended up falling off a yacht and ended up having to survive on a deserted island.  He discusses how he fashioned a bow to hunt with, and how when he discovered a pair of marijuana farmers on the island, he waited until they were good and stoned before he apprehended them, and brought them back to the mainland.  He took off before he could be questioned much by the cops, and that’s why a legend started to grow around him, until he decided to take on the Green Arrow persona and have fun.  He talks about losing his fortune, and almost losing Roy to heroin.  By the time he finishes talking, Dinah’s left, and returns in her old school Black Canary outfit.  An undercover female cop walks around Seattle, trying to find the Seattle Slasher.  We see flashes of the same Vietnamese woman having sex, and see, from the Slasher’s perspective, how he killed her.  The cop’s backup realize they can’t see her, and find her dead in an alley.  Ollie and Dinah are in bed when Ollie asks her to marry him.  She says she’s happy with their current relationship, and questions why he’d want to change things.  Ollie reveals that he’s going to be 43 this week (that right there is probably an argument for why things had to change with the New 52), and he wants to have kids.  Dinah also wants children, but is not prepared to bring them into their life; nor is she prepared to give up being a superhero.  As we watch a montage of Ollie crafting arrows and practicing in the basement, we also see a gravedigger start to fill in a grave after a funeral and himself get shot through the back with a large arrow.  Dinah comes to the basement to give Ollie his birthday present – a new costume.  Ollie heads out into Seattle, looking for the Slasher.  When three punks attempt to mug an older couple, Ollie, in his new hooded Green Arrow look, intervenes, but also questions the punks about the Slasher.  He has sent arrows through one guy’s hand, and another’s ear, and that gives the third the incentive to tell Ollie to look underground.  Ollie heads into the lower levels of Seattle (this is a thing in the downtown, although when I went on a tour in the late ‘00s, there weren’t abandoned storefronts down there like we see here), and finds a spot where someone has been sleeping.  He finds newspaper articles about Vietnam War tunnel rats, and slashers in Chicago and Atlanta, taped to the walls.  He figures the Slasher must be one of the tunnel rats in a photo, when he’s hit from behind.  The Slasher knocks him down, and a fire starts from the lantern that Ollie dropped.  In a flashback, we learn that the Slasher was used for a secret mission in Saigon, and then killed a prostitute before being sent into the wildest part of the Vietnam War, with the hope that he’d be killed there.  As Ollie makes his way back up to the street, the Slasher goes after another victim (another prostitute).  At the same time, a guy at a payphone calls someone to say he’s heard that another person he’s involved with was killed.  We see a tattooed woman on a rooftop knock a longbow.  In a pretty involved sequence, the Slasher grabs the sex worker, but is too far for Ollie to stop.  The woman on the roof shoots the Slasher through the back with one arrow, and then shoots the other guy through the windshield of his car with another before running off.  We see the sex worker return to her pimp, and he pulls a knife on her.  Ollie studies the long arrow and wonders what he’s gotten involved in.
  • Much of issue two is sprinkled with flashback scenes showing the as-yet unnamed woman (who we know to be Shado) being taught in a philosophical approach to archery.  We also see some discussion between a shipping magnate and crook named Magnor (he appeared briefly in issue one) and a younger associate about the fact that someone is snooping into their business.  After the younger guy leaves, Magnor talks to another associate, Cronan, about the various Robin Hood Killer deaths.  Magnor thinks this is all related to something they did in their past.  When Cronan leaves Magnor’s place, he is shot through the neck by Shado, who was waiting outside.  Ollie meets with a police detective, and has a lot to say about the type of arrow that killed the Slasher.  He suggests that the connection between all of Shado’s other victims is that none of them fought in WWII, despite being of the right age for it.  The cop lets him know that there was another Slasher victim, but Ollie insists that it’s a copycat killer.  A uniformed officer arrives to tell her boss that another man was shot dead with an arrow.  The detective falls back on movie dialogue, telling Ollie to stay out of his way and leave town and whatever.  Outside a theatre, a pair of tough guys with a boombox try to rob a pair of older ladies.  Green Arrow intervenes, and then dances with the ladies.  Back home, Ollie finds a note from Dinah, saying she’s going undercover to investigate the drug trade that fed the young woman she met last issue; she tells Ollie to leave her to do it on her own.  He replays their conversation about not having children in his mind, sings happy birthday to himself, and goes to bed alone.  The next day, Ollie drives around Seattle in a very old car, and happens to spot Dinah entering a seedy bar with some guy.  He investigates the area where Cronan was killed, and then drives around some more.  He thinks he sees something, so he changes into his costume and climbs to a building’s roof, just as an old guy gets a newspaper out of a box and walks down the street lecturing about Hollywood depravity or something.  On the roof, Ollie comes across Shado.  They appear to aim at each other, as more of her childhood lessons are shown.  They each fire on the other, but both miss.  The thing is, Shado’s arrow was actually aimed at the guy on the street, and as she knocks the wind out of Ollie with her longbow, the arrow pierces the man’s back, killing him.  Ollie goes home to soak in the tub and think about how he’s slipping, when he sees a news broadcast about a drug killing, and recognizes the guy that Dinah was with earlier.  He jumps out of the tub and heads to that bar, where he manages to get the bartender to identify the guy, and learn that he’s connected to Magnor.  Magnor talks to someone in his office about how they think they identified the “snooper” they were talking about before, and says that he’s got someone trying to figure out what was happening (Ollie, listening in, knows this is a reference to Dinah).  Ollie heads to the warehouse Magnor mentioned, and gets past some guards and their dogs, but finds others dead, with Shado’s arrows sticking out of them.  An older guy jokes with a man processing cocaine about “making it last” with the woman he’s got in a different room.  As both Ollie and Shado separately enter the warehouse, we see that Dinah is hanging from her wrists and has been beaten and cut up.  The man cuts her shirt off, so it’s hanging from her.  He offers her to a guy who’s sitting closeby, before an arrow (presumably Shado’s) comes through the torturer’s chest.  Ollie busts in and shoots an arrow through the other guy’s leg.  That guy opens fire with a submachine gun, and manages in the process to set himself on fire.  Ollie picks up Dinah, and is about to leave when the drug-processing guy comes into the room with a gun.  Shado shoots him through the head, and she and Ollie lock eyes.  Ollie drives a forklift out of the building just before it explodes; Dinah apologizes for missing his birthday.  Shado walks away as they embrace.  
  • Ollie dreams about what happened to Dinah, and it’s made more clear that it was him that shot the guy torturing her.  In his dream, Shado’s dragon tattoo attacks him, and he wakes sitting in the hospital next to Dinah, who is sleeping.  We learn that she isn’t that badly hurt.  Lt. Cameron, the detective, shows up and starts asking questions.  Ollie, in his Green Arrow garb, claims he doesn’t know who Dinah is, and they try to figure out everything that’s going on.  He tells Ollie they found three bodies in the fire at Magnor’s warehouse, and found what looks like three melted arrowheads around them.  Ollie goes to a tattoo parlour to learn about Shado’s tattoo, which some guy identifies as the work of a now-dead Japanese master who tattooed Yakuza.  A new flashback sequence frames these pages, and we see how Shado was tattooed as a young girl, and met the Oyabun, whom she owed a debt.  We learn that Shado’s father and mother came to the US with two million dollars worth of gold bullion, with the intent of expanding the Yakuza there.  They ended up interned during the Second World War, and some of the guards learned of the man’s money.  After the war, they came looking for it, and threatened to kill his wife, so he gave up the gold.  He returned to Japan and committed ritual suicide, and the infant Shado was given over to the Yakuza to train, until the Oyabun came to her.  At the same time, we see Magnor talking to the younger guy from before, who is questioning if Magnor can help him complete the job they’ve arranged together.  Basically, this guy, Osborne, works for the CIA, and is going to use the system that Magnor uses to get drugs into the country to send something else out.  Osborne explains that he’s putting his own man, Fryes, in charge of security, and then he leaves.  Ollie wanders Seattle, hoping to find Shado or a clue.  A homeless lady tells him that a woman with a tattoo gave him a message, which she delivers.  As she walks away, Ollie sees her tattooed wrist peeking from her sleeve.  He figures out that the message is a code telling him to go to Mount Rainier (why not just tell him directly?).  He does this, and enjoys walking through its snow-covered forest.  Shado is there too, and they talk about how she saw him shoot that man.  She explains that she’s there for Magnor, and that she must be the one to kill him for her honour.  As they talk, a helicopter approaches and lands on the mountain.  Magnor and Osborne get out, with some goons, and we see that Fryes has set himself up in a sniper’s position.  We finally learn what all is going on – that Magnor brings in drugs from Central America via another helicopter that brings them from a boat, and that when they are quick, they can not be caught.  Osborne’s plan is to send a bag full of money out on the helicopter – money the CIA is using to fund contras (this is the Iran-Contra era, afterall).  The second chopper lands, and we see that the amount of drugs coming in vastly overshadows the amount of money going out. Shado gets ready to fire on Magnor, while Ollie looks like he’s going to fire an arrow at Shado.  He releases, but he hits Fryes, who is behind her.  Shado hits the drug mule, and in the chaos that follows, Magnor leaves in his chopper.  Ollie almost gets hit by the other chopper, but he takes it down.  Shado waves goodbye and disappears.  Ollie finds Osborne dumping all the drugs.  He gives Ollie the bag of money and walks away, since he can’t be found involved in all this.  Later, Magnor finds Ollie in his office.  They talk, and Magnor admits to what he did as a concentration camp guard.  We get confirmation that he was involved in stealing the gold from Shado’s father, and splitting it with the other men who she killed.  He got connected with the CIA, which is how all their military records were deleted.  He feels like Ollie has nothing to hold over him, but Ollie claims he has a witness that Magnor ordered the killing of the drug dealer Dinah was with.  Magnor knows this is a bluff, but it doesn’t much matter, as Shado shoots him through the window with one of her arrows.  Later, Ollie is sitting with Dinah at the hospital when she wakes up.  Ollie tells her she’s right about not wanting kids, and lets her know that he’s “gotten a raise” as he holds up the bag of money.

I really enjoyed this book.  Grell took a character that had not been well used in a long time (aside from the Denny O’Neil Green Lantern/Green Arrow days, perhaps ever), and showed that he could be a serious protagonist, consistent with the more mature and thoughtful approach that DC was taking with some of their characters.  He introduced a lasting character to the DC Universe in Shado (even if she never was named here as such), and rescued Black Canary from the comedic role she was playing in Giffen and DeMatteis’s Justice League, while also putting the character through the ringer (I’ll come back to that).

I like that Ollie felt like he could just set up shop in Seattle, but seemed to be half-assing it as far as superheroes go until the story got into motion.  His casualness with the police is also an interesting aspect of his character, as is the way Grell downplayed the survival aspects of his origin.  Instead, we see Ollie as this guy who just wanted to shoot some arrows, and is only now, as he moves towards his mid-40s, starting to figure out what his role should be.

Shado is, of course, the most interesting character in this story, and Grell draws her beautifully.  I like that her name isn’t used, and that her story emerges slowly through flashbacks that are interspersed in the middle of other scenes.  It’s a very effective storytelling technique.

At the same time, I found that Grell’s use of double-page spreads often detracted from the readability of the comic, largely because of the deep gutter of prestige format books.  There were more than a few times when I read the bottom half of the left page before realizing how the layout was supposed to work.

I was surprised that this book didn’t have a “mature readers” label on it, as it featured prostitution and sexual violence in the first issue.  I also find it impossible to read the second without surmising that Dinah was raped by the man who held her captive, as well as tortured by him.  The images in this section are disturbing, and definitely worthy of a warning.

A different kind of maturity was shown in Ollie and Dinah’s relationship.  I liked the scene where they discussed starting a family, as it showed them speaking to one another as equals (even if I think it’s weird that she wore her blonde wig to bed).  Dinah is shown as a very independent woman.  I did wonder at the fact that she never used her screaming abilities, or why she seemed to have recovered from her trauma relatively easily by the end of the series, unless this got picked up on in the ongoing series that launched a little later.

Grell used this title to build on Ollie’s stance as a champion of peoples’ rights, as Denny O’Neil showed best in his run.  Ollie seems genuinely interested in stopping the murder of sex workers at a time when it seems the police didn’t much care.  Likewise, the main plot of the book ended up mirroring events happening in the Iran-Contra scandal, and suggested government complicity in the drug trade.  Would that have been controversial in 1987?  I was too young to have been aware of how a lot of the political stuff in this book would have played out at the time.  

I also think it’s very interesting that Grell showed Ollie as willing to kill.  Sure, he could easily justify the killing of the man who tortured Dinah, but what about the guys in the helicopter?  Ollie doesn’t seem very morally concerned with these guys, which rings a little false, unless it got picked up afterwards.  Likewise, it’s curious that he decided to keep the money he got from the CIA guy, instead of giving it to charity (was Ollie the scion of Queen Industries in the post-Crisis DCU?  It’s so hard to keep track of stuff like that).

I also loved Grell’s redesign of Ollie’s costume, putting him in a darker green, and adding the hood to his look, instead of his usual pointy hat.  I don’t know how Ollie expected to keep a secret identity for long with that beard and moustache, but the general look of him, especially at night, is a perfect example of how to update a character.

From here, DC launched an ongoing series, with Grell as writer, that now I feel like I should have checked out.  When conventions come back, I might start looking for a reasonably priced full set, as I’d like to learn more about how Grell originally envisioned Shado, and how Ollie and Dinah worked through this whole situation.

If you’d like to see the archives of all of my retro review columns, click here.

If you’d like to read this, check out this link: Green Arrow: The Longbow Hunters

Tags: , ,